Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Decode Other People's Body Language Accurately

Your unconscious mind already knows the answer.

A useful way to think about gestures is as an early warning system for intent, emotion, and mood. We gesture because our unconscious minds push us to do so with an emotion, an intent, or a desire that our conscious minds are not aware of until after the gesture has started. Our bodies know what we want before our conscious minds do.

That’s counterintuitive because of course the only mind we’re aware of is our conscious one, but brain science in the last decade bears this out. Studies of decision-making show that we make decisions unconsciously, and act on them physically before we’re aware consciously that we’ve done so. The delay can be up to 9 seconds.

So it’s useful to watch others’ body language to know what they’re thinking, desiring, and feeling – before they do.

But don’t try to learn gestures as if they were a one-to-one code, or there was an encyclopedia of gestures to be memorized.

Instead, bring the power of your unconscious mind to bear on the problem.

How do you do this – gain access to your unconscious expertise? After all, by definition, it’s unconscious, right?

What you’re going to have to do is learn to listen to that unconscious mind. It is there, all the time, keeping you alive and monitoring your surroundings and the people around you for threats and opportunities. It’s telling you that you’re hungry, or angry, or bored, or happy and content. It’s running your life for you, in fact, and you’re largely unaware of its existence, except in unusual moments when your gut speaks powerfully to you – I don’t trust that person! – or you duck when a shoe is thrown at you.

How to Use Your Intuition

If you’ve ever had the experience of déjà vu, or a sudden, strong intuition about a person or something that was going to happen, then you’ve heard your unconscious mind trying hard to get in touch with you. If you’ve ever had a gnawing sensation in your gut that things just aren’t going right, despite the fact that on the surface, the day seems fine, then you’ve heard your unconscious mind at work, picking up on cues you’re not consciously aware of, warning you about them. Or if you’ve ever been made uncomfortable by someone you’ve just met, someone who seems friendly enough, then you’ve heard alarm signals coming from your unconscious mind about contradictions in that person’s superficial friendliness masking perhaps some deeper anger or angst.

You should listen to your unconscious mind carefully in those moments, but you should also make friends with it and listen to it much more routinely whenever you want to figure out what someone is intending to do, or thinking, whether it’s in a meeting or a negotiation or simply a conversation with a friend. You’ll find, as you practice your listening skills, that your ability to hear your unconscious quickly and accurately will steadily improve, until it’s a regular companion at your side keeping you abreast of what’s going on around you with very little (conscious) effort.